Tom Crean - Antarctic Explorer
Written and performed by Aiden Dooley
The Speed Queen
Adapted and Performed by Anne Stockton
Based on the Novel by Stuart O'Nan
Directed by Austin Pendleton
Reviewed by David Spencer
Of the two new one-actor shows currently on the boards (well, the two I've seen recently), Tom Crean—Antarctic Explorer is the more traditional in that it's a biographical portrait in which the subject tells his tale to the audience. What its writer-director Aiden Dooley has keyed into, though, is the element that often distinguishes the finest of these shows from the pack—the notion that there is in fact a real-time, real-life audience in a real auditorium come to hear the person speak. This removes the need for artifice (i.e. pretending to speak to characters who aren't onstage) and for justification (i.e. why is he out here speaking to us)? As amiably played by Mr. Dooley, our Mr. Crean makes it even more of a collaboration between audience and speaker, encouraging and acknowledging responses (in moderation, but amusingly).
This turns out to be hugely important, because Tom Crean was along for the adventure and instrumental on three of the most important Antarctic expeditions in history, under Scott and later Shackleton. And as the anecdotes and details illustrate, such adventures can be fraught with danger -- and loneliness (Crean's 36 mile trek to base camp during the Terra Nova expedition to save two colleagues unable to travel further is among the world's most renowned acts of exploration heroism). And by including us in, Mr. Dooley sees to it that we don't just learn about the experience, but come along for the journey, and share Crean's perspective.
The show, which has been performed all over the English-speaking world, relates not just interesting history, but a cracking good yarn, with humor, pathos, evocative detail...and a winning modesty.
The opposite of heroism (anti-heroism? antiheroineism?) is the basis for The Speed Queen, an entry in the Midtown International Theatre Festival. Adapted by its performer, Anne Stockton, from a novel by Stuart O'Nan (if you have a mind for puns, it's sort of amusing that a novel by a man with that name would inspire a one-performer play), its main character is Marjorie, a southern woman on death row, presumably in her last hours, but waiting for judgment on an appeal to stay her execution, tape recording a this is how it really was confessional to an offstage reporter as response to a stack of index cards with his written questions. The "it" was a killing spree in the wake of a robbery, with her abusive husband, lesbian lover and small child in tow. (And they say the nuclear family is under siege.)
I've not read the novel, so I don’t know how faithful the adaptation is, but the approach onstage is to present Marjorie as normal of speech, mannerism and demeanor—uncomplicated, lower class, yet sound of mind and even somewhat charming; only letting her capacity for monstrousness sneak in as the story develops, the point seeming to be an examination of evil as something borne out of ill-considered circumstance and natural-pharmaceutical chemical enhancement—fueled by a perspective-altering adrenaline rush—rather than intrinsic malicious nature.
Ultimately, though, Marjorie is a character who didn't put the brakes on, and how far you're willing to empathize depends on how much patience you can muster for criminality that's not only out of control, but downright stupid. And no mistake, there are those among you who’ll have it. For the show means as well to dramatize how a "stupid" pathology can flourish, so it's all intentional.
On the up side, between Ms. Stockton's understated but focused performance, her economical adaptation, and Austin Pendleton's simple and truthful direction, none of it ever dull, this dark slice of life is handled with a paradoxical (and again intentional) tastefulness, even lightness, so really the entire evening is about the universal balance of contradictory forces.
Personally, I'm happier learning about that from the Simpsons movie. But, hey, that's just me...